From master storyteller Bryce Courtenay comes a colorful, lusty story set in the 13th century, an epic tale of a Europe torn by religious intolerance. The story centers around Sylvia Honeyeater, who sings like an angel and can literally charm the birds from the trees. The narrative also features the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Francis of Assisi, the Muslim Sultan and his harem, and the fervor that becomes the Children's Crusade and then, later, the Crusades.
I am a Bryce Courtney fan. I was intrigued by "Sylvia" because the protagonist is a female--the only time I've encountered this in a Courtney novel. And it is also a historical novel, and I have liked his historical pieces, like "The Potato Factory Trilogy." I did enjoy the story, which is about the doomed Children's Crusade of the 13th Century. However, I almost gave up on it because of the narrator. She has a pleasant voice, but she chose to use a screechy tone for many of the characters that really grated on me. She also adopted a bad German accent when Sylvia or others from Cologne were speaking. You haven't lived until you've heard "vouched" pronounced as "wowched." Every W became a V, and vice versa, while J words like "Johanna" were pronounced J instead of Y, which they would be in German.
Nonetheless, I persisted. Sylvia is a fictional character who accompanies the historical Nicholas of Cologne in his crusade to peacefully reclaim the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy Land. The Church did not support this endeavor, making it even harder for the thousands of children who made the journey--or tried to. Many thousands died in the attempt. Sylvia herself is an intriguing character. She perceives herself as ordinary, but because she can call the birds and has a fish-shaped birthmark on her back, many think her a holy emissary. She struggles with the desire to be holy and the knowledge that she is not throughout the book. In the end, it is her desire for sanctity that is her undoing.
Sylvia is befriended and accompanied by a gay rat catcher who wants to be a musician, and Reinhardt is one of the most appealing characters in the book. He is clearly based on the Pied Piper, and his abilities to soundlessly pipe the rats and control dogs were also viewed as miracles. I don't know if I believed in the amazing abilities of this unlikely duo, but I enjoyed their adventures anyway.
Long story short: if you can endure the narration, you will probably enjoy this book.
High in his attic bedroom, 12-year-old David mourns the loss of his mother. He is angry and he is alone, with only the books on his shelf for company.But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness, and as he takes refuge in the myths and fairytales so beloved of his dead mother, he finds that the real world and the fantasy world have begun to meld. The Crooked Man has come, with his mocking smile and his enigmatic words: "Welcome, your majesty. All hail the new king."
“The Book of Lost Things,” by John Connelly, is a fairy story about fairy stories—and not the kind that necessarily turn out happily ever after. More the Grimm kind, where virtue isn’t always rewarded, but evil is always savagely punished. It shows again that fairy stories are primordial, ancient, bred in the bone.
David, our protagonist, is a 10-year-old English boy who loses his beloved mother in the opening days of WWII. His father and he do as well as they can together, but then David’s father marries Rose and they have a baby boy, Georgie. None of this goes down well with David, who is grieving, angry, jealous, resentful and lonely. He also starts seeing strange things like a crooked old man lurking in his brother’s room, and begins having fits.
The one solace David finds in his new situation is the books in his room. They are fairy stories, but different from the ones he has read before—darker and more disturbing. He asks Rose about them, and she tells him they belonged to a great uncle who had loved the books, but he and a young female relative had disappeared one day and were never seen again.
One night David is awakened by his mother’s voice calling him. He knows his mother is dead, but his desire that this not be true is so powerful that he wanders into a neglected sunken garden. The voice seems to be issuing from a hole beneath a great tree there. As David hesitates, he hears the screaming of a bomber overhead, disabled, on fire, and heading right for him. He dives into the hole beneath the tree and discovers himself in a strange land as the bomber crashes through and David’s escape route is blocked. Just to let you know that the story to come will not be about sweet little creatures with butterfly wings, the pilot’s head bounces by David after the crash, blackened and bloody.
David soon discovers that a great evil is growing in this new land. A wolf army is gathering, led by the Loup, half man, half wolf. The Crooked Man is here as well, and seems to want something from David. The dangers here are genuine and they are deadly. The author doesn’t flinch at detailed descriptions of some truly grotesque and bloody deaths.
Amid the growing darkness, David also meets some good people who help him. One of them tells him to seek out the king of this land because he has “The Book of Lost Things” that will help David to return home. “The Book of Lost Things” doesn’t help him to find his home, but it does clear up the central mysteries of the story, pointing David to the truth of the Crooked Man and his agenda.
David proves he is brave, loyal, and resourceful. He discovers that not everything is what it seems, and learns to be discriminating about whom he trusts—a single misstep could be fatal. In the process, he solves the mystery of what happened to Rose’s great-uncle and his young relative, and of course realizes his mistake in rejecting Rose and Georgie. By the time David finds the way home, we feel he has earned his return many times over.
The book follows David’s life after this event. It was not a life free from pain or unhappiness, but he finds love, comfort and a purpose in life. At the end—I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens at the very end. Like a good fairy story, the end wraps everything up in a most satisfactory way.
I would have to say that ‘The Book of Lost Things” is not for the faint of heart. Although the protagonist is a child and the source material is fairy stories, it is definitely not a children’s tale. I might even hesitate to recommend it to a teenager, particularly if they were going through a Goth phase. There is a lot of violence, a pervasive sense of creeping evil, and many adult themes. I would have to say that it cleaves to the original tenor of the ancient stories, though. The old fairy tales are dark and primeval. They have nothing to do with living happily ever after or marrying the prince. They teach us to beware the evil in the dark and the forces we do not comprehend. “The Book of Lost Things” is that kind of fairy tale.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Nicholas Duncan is a semi-retired shipping magnate who resides in idyllic Beautiful Bay in Indonesia, where he is known as the old patriarch of the islands. He is grieving the loss of his beautiful Eurasian wife, Anna, and is suffering for the first time from disturbing flashbacks to WWII, the scene of their first meeting and early love. His other wartime lover is the striking Marg Hamilton, a powerful and influential political player in Australia who has remained close to Nick.
Spoiler Alert: This review is for “Fishing for Stars,” by Bryce Courtnay. It is a sequel to “The Persimmon Tree.” I will be discussing elements of both books. If you haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree,” I highly recommend that you do. And then skip “Fishing for Stars.”
“The Persimmon Tree” is how I discovered writer Bruce Courtnay. Born in South Africa, he had a notable career in advertising before retiring, moving to Australia and becoming a highly successful novelist. “The Persimmon Tree” was a complete surprise to me. It is the story of a young boy, Nick Duncan, and Anna Till, his first love, and it opens at the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in WWII.
Nick escapes on a sailboat that belonged to Anna’s father and after run-ins with the Japanese, winds up in Australia, now of combat age. He has an affair with an older woman, Marg Hamilton, fights at Guadalcanal with the Americans, and much later, rediscovers his lost Anna.
Anna’s story is weirder and more harrowing. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” by a high-ranking Japanese officer, Konoi Akira, forcibly addicted to heroin to keep her under control, and trained in the art of kinbaku, a ritualized form of rope bondage and sexual torture. This is why the officer wanted her—to perform kinbaku on him.
Long story short, Nick finds Anna (still addicted) running a kinbaku house in Australia, and decides to take her for a heroin-free cruise on her father’s former sailing ship, in an effort to help her go cold turkey. (Not Anna’s idea, by the way.) They sail into the sunset at the end of “The Persimmon Tree,” leaving us hopeful for their future.
Though I read this book years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It was tightly plotted and pulled me right through the story without a pause. I cared about the characters and rooted for Anna and Nick’s happy reunion.
I subsequently read Courtnay’s magnificent “Potato Factory” trilogy based on the life of Ikey Solomon, the model for Dickens’ Fagan character in “Oliver Twist,” plus several other tales. I enjoyed every one of them, even the last one he wrote, “Jack of Diamonds.” I didn’t think it was his best, but he was dying of stomach cancer while writing it, so I thought he deserved a pass.
Which made reading “Fishing for Stars” all the more dismaying. It is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Anna did not respond well to the amateur intervention and stays addicted. She has morphed into a skilled businesswoman with an insatiable appetite for more. Mostly more money, and she isn’t overly choosy how she makes it. She and Nick are lovers, but she won’t allow any touching below the waist as she suffers from vaginismus—a painful cramping of the vaginal muscles. She believes her power lies in preserving her virginity.
Nick admits to being completely satisfied by Anna’s sexual ministrations, but he chunters on ad nauseum about his “need to possess her fully” for YEARS. If I were Anna, I would have dumped him.
Marg Hamilton, the woman with whom he has an affair in his youth, reappears, newly widowed. After several years, she consents to sleep with him again, as long as Anna agrees. (I don’t know any men that patient. Do you?) Marg has become a green activist in direct opposition to most of Anna’s commercial activities. The two women call each other “the green bitch” and “Princess Plunder,” and settle down to really despising each other’s guts.
The first third of the book sets the scene and fills in the background for those who haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree.” Not brilliant, but readable. The second part of the story is an action-filled, well-plotted visit to Japan, where Anna confronts her old nemesis Konoi Akira. We get into Yakuza, the Shield Society, kidnapping, Manga porn, murder and mayhem, and it’s all pretty interesting.
The third part of the book is about Marg and her conservation efforts. It is essentially a long and tedious history of the Green political movement in Tasmania and I almost gave up.
In the end, Marg screws Anna (metaphorically), and Anna screws Marg. Nick spends the whole book as a sort of pingpong ball being batted between these two women.
I have always admired Courtnay’s portrayals of women. They are always three-dimensional, strong portraits, contrasting dramatically with the way men often write female characters. However, the way Marg and Anna are written in “Fishing for Stars” turns them into two equally unpleasant viragos—an impression heightened by the narrator, Humphrey Bower. (I listened to the audiobook.) Bower—who is brilliant at accents, from southern Black American to Japanese¬—plays Marg as an unusually sniffy school librarian, and Anna as a bitch.
In the final analysis, “Fishing for Stars” is a bad book by a good author, and a very disappointing finale to the characters I loved in “The Persimmon Tree.” I strongly encourage you to read Courtnay’s other work, in particular “The Persimmon Tree,” “The Potato Factory Trilogy,” and “Brother Fish.” You won’t be disappointed.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Great mystery and suspense writers have created some of the most unforgettable stories in all of literature. Even those who don't consider themselves fans of this intriguing genre are familiar with names such as Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Hannibal Lecter, and Robert Langdon, and understand the deep and lasting impact this writing has had on literature as a whole.
When I downloaded this Great Course, I thought it would be about WRITING mystery and suspense. It isn't. It's sort of an overview of the literature, from "Murders in the Rue Morgue" to "The Da Vinci Code.' If you are already a devoted reader of mysteries and suspense, there will be little fresh material here, though I did get some leads on mystery authors I haven't yet read. If you want to discover new authors, keep a pad and pen with you--I have forgotten most of the authors and book titles already.
On the plus side, the lecturer knows his material backward and forward, and is a true devotee of the genre. He talks about Sherlock Holmes as though he knew him personally, and his depth of knowledge about these writers and their work is phenomenal. It just didn't happen to be what I wanted, which is not the fault of the course.
10 of 12 people found this review helpful
Richard Jury is meeting Tom Williamson at Vertigo 42, a bar on the 42nd floor of an office building in London’s financial district. Despite inconclusive evidence, Tom is convinced his wife, Tess, was murdered 17 years ago. The inspector in charge of the case was sure Tess’ death was accidental - a direct result of vertigo - but the official police inquiry is still an open verdict and Jury agrees to re-examine the case.
I have long loved Martha Grimes' Richard Jury mysteries, with their English coziness, humor and endearing characters. However, "Vertigo 42" was not up to her usual standards--maybe she's getting tired of Jury? The plot revolves around a 20-year-old child murder, a 17-year-old murder of an adult, and two contemporary murders--all of which Jury decides are connected. I don't know why the Metropolitan Police would allow one of their most talented investigators and his sidekick (Wiggins) to spend weeks pursuing cold cases and murders outside of the Yard's jurisdiction, but that is what Ms. Grimes would have us believe. The motives behind these murders, the amazing mountain of lies and misdirection, and the impossibly baroque complexity of the plot were never convincing. I didn't believe any of it, and that is the key to fiction--willing suspension of disbelief. I hope the next Jury mystery is sturdier.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Michael J. Sullivan garnered critical raves and a massive readership for his Riyria Revelations series. The first book in his highly anticipated Riyria Chronicles series of prequels, The Crown Tower brings together warrior Hadrian Blackwater with thieving assassin Royce Melborn. The two form a less-than-friendly pairing, but the quest before them has a rare prize indeed, and if they can breach the supposedly impregnable walls of the Crown Tower, their names will be legend.
I could not even finish listening to the author's introductory remarks, which went into great and self-satisfied detail about his books, different orders in which to read them, and promised that dedicated readers would be thrilled by all the clever references to previous work he snuck into this series, etc., etc., etc. I figured if I was so turned off by his commentary, I would probably hate the book, so I stopped listening right then and there.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful
Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother's meddling and an adviser's bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping conventional boundaries and asserting her opinions.
A well-written biography of a rather misunderstood woman. Victorian has come to imply prudishness, but the queen was actually fairly broad minded. She was more sentimental than anything else. The author shows how Victoria played a pivotal role in the political landscape of her age and also exposes her frailties. The queen emerges as a very real and human figure, a woman surprisingly unpretentious and free of prejudice for her time. The major flaw in the book is the author's tendency to write about how Victoria thought or felt or wondered, which is not something for which there is any possible evidence. Or to describe how Lord Whoever drove through the streets, naming the types of people or happenings as he drove by--again, pure fiction. I found this annoying and condescending, as though the reader can't be persuaded to keep reading unless the facts are tarted up with fiction.
16 of 16 people found this review helpful
Centuries ago, Spanish conquistadors searching for gold and new lands encountered a group of independent city-states in Mesoamerica. Sophisticated beyond the Spaniards' wildest imaginings, these people were the Aztecs, the Maya, and related cultures that shared common traditions of religion, government, the arts, engineering, and trade. In many ways more advanced than European nations, these societies equaled the world's greatest civilizations of their time.
The course is roughly chronological, with deeper forays into topics such as Maya mathematics or Aztec art. I learned a TON, even though I know there's far more to learn. I have always been confused about the relationship between various Mesa-American groups, and that's a lot clearer to me now. The presenter takes many side trips into interesting theories and discoveries and is very entertaining.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
The New York Times best-selling author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The War of the Roses, historian Alison Weir crafts fascinating portraits of England’s infamous House of Tudor line. Here Weir focuses on Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen, who ascended to the throne at age 25 and never married, yet ruled for 44 years and steered England into its Golden Age.
I read "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" by the same author and enjoyed it, so I bought this book, being an admirer of Elizabeth I. The book is well-written, and Davina Porter is, as always, a superb narrator. But this biography doesn't bring much new to light about the life of Elizabeth I. An inordinate amount of time was spent in minute examination of Elizabeth's many offers of marriage and presumed dalliances (Weir concludes that Elizabeth was actually afraid of marriage and sex and really was a virgin queen--technically). Most of these marriage proposals were just red herrings and had no real impact on the politics or events in England at the time. I was hoping for more about Elizabeth's erudition, her impact on English law, her religious tolerance, her brutal incursions into Ireland, etc., but while these things were touched on, not enough was said about them. In fact, I thought the book focused on things that, had she been a man, would barely have been mentioned: marriage proposals and boyfriends.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Far from being a time of darkness, the Middle Ages was an essential period in the grand narrative of Western history. But what was it like to actually live in those extraordinary times? Now you can find out.These 36 lectures provide a different perspective on the society and culture of the Middle Ages: one that entrenches you in the daily human experience of living during this underappreciated era.
This is an excellent overview of Medieval life, culture, and history. The speaker debunks some popular misconceptions as she explores various aspects of the time, and does an excellent job of tying together all the various trends and showing how they evolved into the modern. As someone who has read extensively about Medieval times, I didn't learn much, but there were some interesting details I hadn't encountered previously. The presentation is very engaging and it held my attention.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful